The shoe’s on the other foot now…

Okay, after all the comments and speculation last week, I’ll try and keep this one brief. But in the light of reading part four, I would say MM has been rather vindicated, wouldn’t you? She certainly shows spirit and fortitude in approaching her father and sending Defarge and Lorry back when they are fretting over the knife. And some proactive behaviour at last when she takes the lead on getting her father out of Paris, while Lorry just blows his nose. I guess when her father was still theoretical, there was room for fear, but on seeing him, love conquers all (someone pass another sickbag to Mr Booley). I still stand by my admiration of Dickens’s description of MM’s fear in part three as a fantastic way of shocking the reader and building anticipation for part four, and the idea isn’t completely abandoned in this week’s episode as we see MM move from fear to love:

with hands which at first had been only raised in frightened compassion, if not even to keep him off and shut out the sight of him, but which were now extending towards him, trembling with eagerness to lay the spectral face upon her warm young breast, and love it back to life and hope

We see here at last MM stepping forward and taking control and becoming a heroine indeed. Good for her, and shame on us.


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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (

14 thoughts on “The shoe’s on the other foot now…

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post, Pete. I am intrigued, and quite surprised, that so many of our discussions have been dominated by MM. I wonder, though, if there is something slightly problematic about examining the ‘character’ of MM through a realist lens. As part four shows, TOTC is, like Dickens’s other novels, explicitly melodramatic and MM is an exemplary melodramatic heroine. Your quotation from ‘Astley’s’ (1835) is apt here. This week’s instalment abounds with theatrically inflected language – “Kiss me, kiss me! O my dear, my dear!” – and gestures (MM’s hands are raised and then extend towards her father). MM is not ‘realistic’ in the sense we have been debating because she is eminently a theatricalised, melodramatic character and she would have been immediately recognised as such by Dickens’s mass readership who were, like him, immersed in the language of theatre. I am also intrigued by the moment of ‘shame’ you mention: “He had sunk in her arms, with his face dropped on her breast: a sight so touching, yet so terrible in the tremendous wrong and suffering which had gone before it, that the two beholders covered their faces.” I was reminded of the story of ‘Roman Charity’, in which Pero secretly breastfeeds his father who has been imprisoned and sentenced to death by starvation. Hence, “She held him closer round the neck, and rocked him on her breast like a child”. The word ‘breast’ recurs 7 times on p. 75, partly reflecting, I think, a language of heightened melodrama and sentimentality, but perhaps also gesturing to the material and spiritual succour MM is offering to provide for her benighted father.

    • There’s definitely a sense of role reversal here, in MM mothering her father (not to mention his initial misrecognition of her as her own mother), and also in MM becoming the practical one while Lorry gets emotional. I’m intrigued by thinking of this scene theatrically, especially given the comments already made by others throughout of how pictorial/cinematic/theatrical the descriptions frequently are. I know this is a common attribute given to Dickens in all of his writings, but is it just me or is ATOTC particularly dramatised in its descriptions? Sorry to harken back to the Ellen Ternan factor again, but is there any link in MM’s dramatic posturings and Ternan as a model for the character – is Dickens basing MM upon Ternan the woman, or Ternan the actress and dramatic figure upon the stage?

      • I’m convinced Dickens is thinking of Ellen Ternan as an actress in the dramatic scenes. The description is so like her physically – golden locks, puzzled expression, blue eyes. The play where he first met Ellen, ‘The Frozen Deep’, was a highly melodramatic piece, Dickens in the leading part, ending with a noble sacrifice . . . Whether MM is like Ternan the woman we will never know, since Ellen covered her tracks so efficiently that virtually nothing is known of her personality. In her post-Dickens life she comes across as a very determined character, expunging her ten years with Dickens by simply deducting them from her age. But Dickens didn’t know about that.

  2. Nice to see someone stand up for Lucie. 🙂 (That’s her name, by the way. I’d totally forgotten that it takes so long to reveal it.) I’m rather unfashionably fond of her, even though the “weep for it” speech really is terrible.

  3. I said admiringly last week that chapter 5 was Dickens “operating at full capacity”, but this week I think he’s gone a bit over the top. I wouldn’t go so far as to ask for mrbooley’s sickbag, but it is just a bit too melodramatic. Not a surprise, though – this kind of thing is all of a piece with CD’s passionate rhetoric elsewhere.
    So yes, Dickens could well have been imagining Ellen Ternan acting out this scene on stage as he was writing it. The staginess of this scene oddly reminds me of the over-emphatic gestures of silent cinema: the hair torn in a frenzy, the “heaving breast” (incidentally there seem to be a lot of breasts in this chapter) and so on. And the words are a kind of cod Shakespeare – MM’s words can easily convert into Elizabethan pentameters:
    And if, when I shall tell you of my name,
    and of my father who is living …
    – and the perfect iambic line:
    I feel his sacred tears upon my face.
    Dickens’s staginess is, I suppose, part of his appeal. Compared to other Victorian novelists – Trollope, Eliot, even Thackeray – CD doesn’t really let us into his characters’ thoughts: it’s all external observation, which is presumably why he is so notoriously filmic and filmable. I’ve been reading some Trollope recently: if – an unlikely “if” – Trollope had been narrating this scene, I’m sure we would have been inside Miss Manette’s brain learning of her thoughts and emotions, not just presenting his characters as it were upon a stage.
    As for the information that we have already reached the end of the “First Book”, I would have thought the average ATYR reader might feel a bit, well, short-changed. And short-charactered, too. Six chapters, and we haven’t had even half a dozen characters to get our teeth into, as it were. Compare this with the first few chapters of (say) Our Mutual Friend, which has introduced us to Hexams, Veneerings, Wilfers, Mortimer Lightwood, John Rokesmith and a number of others in just the first four chapters.

    • Lots to unpack from this comment. First and foremost, I do love iambic pentameter – thanks for spotting that! I also found your comments on Dickens’s focus on the external actions rather than interior feelings very intriguing – sort of a literary behaviour therapy model, where the actions dictate the thoughts. And yes, the number of characters are rather thin on the ground at this stage aren’t they? But I do think the number has a nice feeling of interlinking and rounding off to it – did you notice the repetition in chapter titles? THE Period, THE Mail, THE Night Shadows, THE Preparation, THE Wineshop, THE Shoemaker.

      Coming back to the general tone of the scene – what I henceforth dub the sentiment vs sickbag debate – call me a sap but I like it. While the language and theatrical nature can make it seem over the top, conversely, it’s also stepping down a gear from previous installments. Consider the breakneck speed of part one, or the savage wine party of part three. Even part two, with the pairing of Lorry and MM (remember Gina [and Ben], she herself says this week “at another time you shall know my name…but I cannot tell you at this time”), it still has that initial opening with Lorry out in public, and talking to the waiter. But this part has a very limited focus in both space and time, and a very small cast, a point which Dickens makes a particular point of:

      “No crowd was about the door; no people were discernible at any of the many windows; not even a chance passer-by was in the street.”

      This is the moment the last three parts have been building up to, and Dickens counters that momentum by bringing the focus in and losing the crowds. Of MM’s language, her repeated calls to “weep for it” are, to my mind, your basic common-garden therapy of “there, there, let it all out”. Dr Manette is clearly in a state of denial or shock, so the simple act of letting his tears out is a much needed act of catharsis on the road to recovery. Her repetition of the phrase then, while potentially melodramatic, is necessarily repeated, almost like an exorcism, as she draws out the suppressed fears and emotions from the shell of her father.

      • I’d been mostly skimming at odd moments before, and hadn’t noticed that everyone was committed to not getting ahead of ourselves, and thus to sticking with “MM” for the time being. Again, I do apologize for my blunder.

      • Don’t worry Gina, there are many of us struggling to keep within the limits of where we’ve read to. It’s rather symptomatic of the modern age – whenever any film or television series comes out, there are always rumours and leaked plots coming out beforehand. With Dickens of course the number of people involved in the creative process was drastically reduced from that of a film crew, but there were still the pirate editions and theatres putting in their penny’s worth of what was coming round the corner – it must have been very frustrating for Dickens whenever they got it right!

  4. Wow. I loved this part. I felt a real emotional commitment to the text. For me, this was where the story really got going. (In fact, if it was published today this would probably be the first chapter.) Miss Manette dominates the scene and becomes the director while the other characters submit to her wishes. Her long speech to her father is also a speech to the reader, begging them to connect to her father’s situation. Gone is the confusion of the first few chapters; I am now focused on the plot and can be confident I am investing my time well. As for melodrama, perhaps by today’s tastes it is melodramatic, but I think readers of the time would have relished it.

    A lot easier to read the original text this week thanks to the tip about resizing – probably took me half the time!

  5. So many responses to this chapter, and so many things I didn’t think about. I have thought about the Ellen Ternam thing, though. As a person who occasionally writes stories, I think there is a tendency to start characters with the seed of basing them on someone the author knows. I think with a good writer, the characters take on a life of their own, and that this is how a realistic character is developed. There is very limited merit to analysing a story by looking for inspritations in the author’s life, I think, and I think that doing that often gives the readers or critic blinders the the merits of the story on its own. I like to imagine MM as MM and not as Ellen dressed up as MM, which reduces her character to the lewd (is that too harsh?) fantasy of an older man. If one is to get anything from MM’s character, one has to ignore the “dirty old man’s fantasy” angle.
    So, imagine yourself as MM. She’s a bit over the top, true….but not many girls have gone through what she is going through. She has a bit of an excuse. What would you have done differently, and what in her character makes her behave the way she does? She’s lost her father and now finds him again this pathetic and haggard madman. She’s a good enough person that she can overcome horror and disgust.

    • The issue of inspiration and creation is especially difficult with Dickens because he and everyone who knew him all remarked on his photographic memory, so details of scenes and locations are often very true to life, which gives some precedent for comparisons between characters and real-life persons (see Mowcher, Merdle, and Skimpole for high-profile examples).

      That said, Dickens was equally praised for his imaginative powers, and the effort he put in to realise his characters, frequently referred to by himself as his children (or was that the books themselves?). I think also there is a particular motivation in this instance for looking at real-life inspirations because of the lack of any detailed writing from Dickens to Ternan, so we turn to his fiction for any clues we can (much as the constant interpretations of Shakespeare’s sonnets as autobiography seeks to do).

      The interest here is that, given Dickens was giving up a lot for Ellen, and given that elsewhere he wasn’t acting rationally (there’s that letter he published which no-one then or since has ever forgiven him for), to what extent would he be objective or subjective when writing a character sharing the same physical characteristics as his new love?

      You’re absolutely right that it all has to be treated with caution and a pinch of salt, but it’s also potentially true that some aspect of MM’s character will offer commentary on Dickens and Ternan – the trick is knowing WHICH aspects, and that’s what can make a folly of the whole exercise. Either way, with Ralph Fiennes’s new biopioc of Ternan now in production, you can expect to see a lot more discussion of Ellen in Dickens’s writings over the next few months…

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